Mark 6:1-6, Wednesday of Week 4 in Ordinary Time
We have a dear, dear lady who works for us, Nancy. She’s by far one of the most industrious people I’ve met in my Jesuit life. She’s in her early 30s, shorter and much thinner than I. But she’s a dynamo. She’s always doing chores. Even when her male counterparts are sitting around, smoking and texting beyond break time, Nancy is scrubbing, emptying garbage, washing dishes, vacuuming. But Nancy is quite ill. A tumor in her inner ear is already encroaching into her brain. We have helped her get into Philippine General Hospital, but there is a long, long line of patients in more desperate need of surgery. Unless Nancy comes up with ₱60,000, the doctor said she will have to wait until next December for surgery. Meanwhile, Nancy has good days and bad days, as you can imagine. But when she does report for work, she doesn’t have an “off” button, making her only the more admirable. “Nancy, dahan-dahan lang, pahinga naman.” “ ‘Di, Pader, sige lang,” she says in her tiny, hoarse voice. “Kaya pa naman po. Salamat po. Kelangan lang talaga kumayod.” [“Nancy, take it easy, ha — take a break from time to time.” “No, Father, it’s OK. I can still do it — thank you for the concern. I just really need to work.”]
In the person of Nancy, we can trace the three general reasons/sources of human suffering: the body’s biology, which accounts for her tumor; the structural sins of the world, which account for why she and her whole clan have remained poor; and thirdly, and to her own admittance, her own bad decisions in life, especially getting married way too early against the good counsel from family.
Today, we read in Hebrews something that has always disturbed me. “Endure your trials as discipline; God treats you as his children. What child is there whom the father does not discipline? At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, but later it brings peace and righteousness to those trained by it.” I’ve always had a problem with that. It sounds like our suffering, or “trials” — pagsubok — come directly from God. Then what? Because our trials are conjured by divine genius, we must “endure” them? Because God is teaching us a lesson, we just suffer in silence? And when we endure the “trial,” God rewards us in the end? So the good end — the reward — justifies the means — the suffering? “Pagsubok yan ng Diyos; tiisin mo yan.” [“God is just testing you. You have to bear it!”] Haven’t we often recited that line to our friends and to ourselves? That has never sounded right to me.
From the time Hebrews was written up to now, this is how many Catholics think about suffering: a trial, a test from God we must endure. I personally do not subscribe to that. From how I’ve seen people suffer — including my family and close friends — suffering can’t be a divine concoction, force-fed into us which we must swallow in total abandon. Like I’ve mentioned, suffering is caused either by our finite biology, or the sins of other people that eventually affect us, or our own sins, and the complex, sometimes lethal combination of the three. Suffering, in my opinion, is caused by man, not God. “But, Fr. Arnel, what about Nancy’s tumor?” Well, while we don’t have control over our biological misfires, Nancy would be in much better hands if the structural sins of our country didn’t perpetuate her poverty and made it a struggle to cough up ₱60,000 to get a jump on the line for surgery. But prescinding from our bodily finitude, our suffering is the sum-total of either or both the sins of the world and/or our own really bad decisions. But if anyone is to be blamed for suffering, it is and should never be God — in any way, shape, or form.
In fact, Nancy can teach us a lesson or two. She often says, “Pero alam niyo, Pader, never ko po naramdaman na pinababayaan kami ng Diyos.” [“You know what, Father, I never felt abandoned by God.”] Nancy gets it that God does not cause her suffering. God is present in her suffering, helping her day by day, hour by hour, moment by painful moment — to ease her suffering through many, many means, especially through people he put in her life to love and care for her. God isn’t like the whimsical gods in mythology who toyed with human fate for entertainment, while they remained splendidly airborne from the mortal world. The clearest proof of the opposite is Jesus who revealed completely what God is like. Jesus spent all his ministerial life alleviating suffering by healing, feeding, teaching, and exorcising. Never once did he subject anyone to suffering, so he could make a case for suffering as God’s pedagogical tool, never. Para sa akin po, hinding-hindi nanunubok ang Diyos. Ang panunubok ay gawain ng isang mapagduda at walang-puso. At kailanman, hindi ganiyan ang Maykapal. “Alam niyo, Pader, never ko po nararamdaman na pinabayaan kami ng Diyos.” [In my opinion, God will never test us. Only the insecure and the heartless test — God is and never will be like that. “You know what, Father, I never felt abandoned by God.”]
*image from the Internet